A Thousand Words: Sharon Tate by Terry O'Neill
In this new, reasonably regular, series, we’re going to look at some of the photographs that have affected me over the years. The old adage “A picture paints/is worth a thousand words” is going to be our dictum. Over the course of a thousand words, we’ll tell the story of the image, the photographer and the subject and try to add a bit of depth to the image. The first few images I’ve selected all come, in my mind, from the golden age of photography, the 1960’s and 1970’s. The world was in turmoil, everything felt like it was changing, youth, art, music, sex, life. But, at the same time, as much as the world was fighting for or against the change, there were those just trying to live their lives and those with a camera snapping away. The first image is of and by people who were at the epicentre of the 1960’s. The thousand words begin now.
It was a Monday afternoon in London when Terry O’Neill met up with his friend Sharon Tate, shortly before she flew home to LA. As they jumped into the back of the waiting limo, Tate starting unwrapping a package. Inside were clothes for her unborn child with Roman Polanski. Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant. The ‘60’s were a magical time and it was not yet deemed medically imprudent that a heavily pregnant woman shouldn’t really fly. Terry O’Neill was famous in his own right. He’d got his break when he took a picture of an up and coming band that ended up on the cover of The Daily Sketch. That band was The Beatles. After seeing the picture, and the reaction to it, a young band manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who was 19 at the time, rang O’Neill up and asked if he could photograph this band he had just signed, The Rolling Stones. O’Neill agreed and the world saw, as well as heard, The Stones for the first time. O’Neill would capture some of the seminal pop culture images of the age, his shot of Sinatra with his entourage is an incredible photo. O’Neill’s work captures some incredible candid moments and some stunning portraiture. But there is something in the series of shots with Sharon Tate that go beyond the norm. In that moment he captured pure happiness, we now only see the spectre of fear.
Sharon Tate was a Texas girl that came west with the dreams of all young people arriving in Hollywood, stardom. She had modeled from an early age and was captivatingly beautiful. In 1963 she got a few roles on TV, including The Beverly Hillbillies, before, two years later, landing the role of the seductive witch in the David Niven film Eye of the Devil. After finishing the film, Tate stayed on in London, where she met Roman Polanski. Despite not feeling the chemistry straight away, Polanski cast Tate in his film The Fearless Vampire Killers and during production of the very of its time horror/comedy, they hit it off and started a relationship. Returning to the states, Tate landed a leading role in the film adaptation of one of the books of the 60’s, Valley of the Dolls, while Polanski started work writing and directing Rosemary’s Baby, the film that would make him. Valley of the Dolls on the other hand is one of those films that make you wish you’d read the book before being put off it. Still, its interesting and was a somewhat success when it opened, despite a critical panning. Tate played Jennifer, a beautiful actress of indifferent talent who ends up making soft porn films to pay the bills. When Jennifer gets cancer, she’s more or less left on her own. It's all rather depressing, but Tate is good in it and shows that mysterious thing; an actress that demands attention on screen, despite the material. That Tate is in Valley of the Dolls is one of the reasons the film is remembered today and because of the Russ Meyer sequel/parody of it, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is a far better film, if insane. Roger Ebert, legendary critic and as Beyond proved, a not very good screenwriter, dammed Tate’s Dolls performance with faint praise. Watching it now, it is a very 60’s film, made in that period just before the rebels, of which Polanski was one, took control of Hollywood and remade it anew with a chemical enhanced vigour. Rosemary’s Baby, starring Mia Farrow, was a huge hit, as we well know. While Tate gave input into the direction of the film, she wasn’t the name actress producer Robert Evans thought the film needed. Sharon watched and played the supportive other-half while Polanski basked in the acclaim. Tate and Polanski married in London in January 1968 and became the “It” couple of the Hollywood scene, but it was not a perfect marriage. Tate hoped for a normal relationship, Polanski, well, is Polanski. Say what you will about his art, as a man, he leaves much to be desired. I asked the author Robert Harris about him, as the two have collaborated on a couple of films and are currently fine tuning the script of Harris’ superb An Officer and a Spy. Harris just smiled and said “Roman is Roman.” O’Neill, was less fulsome in his opinion of him. Says it all really. But, this was the 60’s, the Summer of Love had just passed, the new generation was taking control and Tate and Polanski were at its very heart.
It was during late 1968 that Tate found out she was pregnant. The couple rented 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon from Dorris Day’s son Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen. Melcher was no longer comfortable there following a falling out over a supposed record deal with an aspiring musician with delusions of his own importance named Charles Manson. Tate was delighted, she loved the house. In July of 1969 Tate visited Polanski in London and met up with Terry O’Neill. O’Neill snapped the series of pictures of woman he would remember to me as “a delight, as lovely as she was beautiful”. What happened when Sharon Tate returned to Los Angeles and invited a group of friends round to the Cielo Drive house on Friday 9th August 1969 doesn’t need to be discussed here. Sharon Tate’s short life is overshadowed by her terrible death. Looking at O’Neill’s photographs, he has captured the joy of life, that wonderful moment before parenthood when everything is possible, everything is hope and love. I suppose those photos capture that moment post Woodstock and before Manson and Altamont when, as Hunter S Thompson so vividly described, the wave finally broke and rolled back. Look at that beautiful, happy woman and remember her life, her work (The Wrecking Crew is great fun) and dream, please, if just for a moment, of the life Sharon Tate and her child may have had.
Breaking Stones, a collection of early Rolling Stones photographs by Terry O’Neill and Gered Mankowitz is published by ACC Editions and is available now.
I spoke with Terry O’Neill at Hatchard’s Piccadilly on 11th April 2016 at an event for Breaking Stones. I spoke with Richard Harris at the LSE Literary Festival on 23rd February 2016 at an event discussing the Political Novel.